Duke's Campus: Where the Wild Things Are

August 17, 2012
Michael Penn

Usually when we talk about diversity on Duke’s campus, we’re referring to the rich mix of racial and cultural backgrounds represented in the student community. But there’s another kind of diversity that is just as important to what makes Duke special—its biodiversity.

Fairly new beaver dam developing along New Hope Creek in Duke Forest. [Credit: Jeffrey Pippin]

Duke’s vast stretches of leafy, green splendor don’t just make for pretty campus scenery. They also are a home for a stunning variety of living things. On campus and in the adjacent Duke Forest, you’ll find some 75 types of broadleaf trees and more than 1,000 species of plants, which provide food and shelter for a menagerie of birds, insects, and other animals. According to Jeff Pippen, an instructor in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Duke’s unofficial recorder of campus wildlife, 85 species of butterflies call Duke home, as well as 60 species of amphibians and reptiles, 150 species of birds, 45 species of dragonflies, and as many as 1,000 different kinds of moths.

“It’s such a valuable resource,” says Pippen, who leads a popular class that explores Duke’s wild places. “You can walk down a path by the chapel and be surrounded by so many different kinds of life. It’s unique to have that kind of diversity right on campus.”

One of Pippen’s favorite Duke inhabitants is Apheloria tigana, a yellow-spotted millipede that’s easy to find on a forest path after a rainfall. The insects play an important role in the life of a forest, chewing up decaying leaves and turning them into mulch. But they also have a nasty side: Shake one, and you’ll likely smell a faint whiff of almonds. It’s actually cyanide gas, which the millipedes release to ward off predators. Just part of the grand drama that plays out—mostly undeterred and unnoticed by Duke’s human residents—every day on campus.